The ABCs of Making It
By Writer: Jan Alexander

(MONEY Magazine) – James Underwood memorized every question in the driver's license handbook, then persuaded the exam administrator to test him orally. ''People who can't read and write have very good memories,'' he says. They have even more than that, to judge by Underwood and our other MoneyMaker, Cordell Sunkel. Both were determined to be business owners even though every check they received was a mystery to decipher. While statistics do not exist on the number of unlettered entrepreneurs, one out of every five American adults is functionally illiterate -- that is, can't read at the sixth-grade level. There is little doubt that earning a living on your own has a special appeal -- and risk -- to people unable to fill out an ordinary employment application. As the two MoneyMakers here discovered, owning a business guarantees a constant uphill struggle for the nonreader. Happily, literacy has rewritten their stories.

Cleaning up in business by the book

A sign that James Underwood saw but couldn't read changed his life. While sweeping the floors at Freedom Mall in Charlotte, N.C. four years ago, he watched as movers hung the sign and hauled desks into an empty storefront. His curiosity aroused, he found out from the movers that they were installing a state-sponsored school for illiterate adults. Underwood, then 44, was overjoyed. One vivid memory: ''When they opened, I was one of the first people through that door.'' After three months of drilling with his ABLE (Adult Basic Literacy Education, a North Carolina program) tutor, Underwood discovered himself reading ASHEVILLE, 35 MILES on a sign along a familiar highway. ''A lot of little things like that showed me that my life was going to get a lot better,'' he recalls. It did, and fast. He had run Underwood Cleaning Service since 1978 with annual grosses stuck between $20,000 and $25,000. Survival depended on the good will of three or four long-term clients, because Underwood was afraid to solicit new ones. ''I might be handed a list of instructions and then what would I do?'' he says. In 1984, revenues spurted to $30,000 and in 1985 they catapulted to $60,000. Now the company takes in about $90,000 a year from a dozen contracts and employs 10 full-time workers. It took long and bitter experience to teach Underwood the value of learning. He and his 12 brothers and sisters were full-time hands from the age of six on their family's farm in Wallace, N.C. James attended school only sporadically and dropped out in eighth grade. At 20, determined to escape the endless labor of farm life, he found a job as a janitor in nearby Charlotte. He was honest about his illiteracy with his employer and with Beverly, the high school student who married him in 1961, shortly before her 16th birthday. Beverly, who worked as a printer, accepted the task of reading for her husband as a fact of life. But he found it humiliating that she made $85 a week to his $68. Determined to do better, he found a job driving a truck for about $5,000 a year, after memorizing the driver's license handbook and managing to pass the test orally. In 1969 his pride was wounded further when his boss hinted that he was making as much money as he ever would. The suggestion enraged him so much that he left that job to work as a binder in a print shop at an architectural firm at double his previous salary. He relied on simply recognizing page numbers. He was happy there until the mid-'70s, when everyone was granted a raise of $1 an hour except him. As the token black, he got 25 cents and the now-familiar admonishment that this was all he could ever expect to make. Then when he resigned, his supervisor told him that he had earned $900 in the company profit-sharing plan, instead of the several thousand he had estimated. Underwood took his records to a lawyer, who quickly got his client the amount he was actually owed -- $6,000, after legal and other fees. That convinced Underwood that people wouldn't take advantage of him if they thought he could read. As custodial manager for a church, he made $12,500 a year overseeing a staff of three, and no one there caught on to his secret. But he felt exploited again when volunteer custodians were unavailable for a dance at the church, and he had to cancel a family trip to Disney World, where his son was scheduled to play trombone in his school band. The same year, he started Underwood Cleaning Service with $50 and a battered pickup truck, buying equipment on credit as jobs demanded it. He kept afloat until six months after starting the ABLE course, when the waves of new clients began rolling in. The only casualty: he became so busy that he had to stop attending his classes. Underwood, who plans to pay himself $30,000 this year, is now almost as conspicuous a consumer around the malls as he is a cleaner. Recent indulgences: a large-screen TV and tickets to the Bahamas for himself and Beverly. He also stops regularly at a bank to add to a college fund for his daughter Elaine, 16. ''My two boys finished high school, and Elaine wants to be a dermatologist,'' he says, thrilled that his own children have never had to miss school.

The road from unteachable to unstoppable

Cordell Sunkel, 44, can move boulders, but he couldn't fight his way through a first-grade reader until five years ago. Without reading, the Silverdale, Wash. ace machinist turned entrepreneur ran Sunkel Construction, grading land for homeowners and private developers. The really lucrative state and federal highway work, however, was beyond his grasp because he couldn't read the mountains of specifications. There were other problems too. He sometimes lost clients when he forgot appointments he could not write down. And the construction industry's many trade journals were useless to him, so he was unaware of equipment advances. But no more. When his books showed 1986 as his best year to date, with $200,000 in sales, a 20% pretax profit and a $25,000 salary for him, Sunkel knew he could attribute the numbers largely to shrewd, well-read planning instead of random twists of fate. For years, Sunkel's wife Bonnie, 39, prodded him to attend adult reading classes. He would oblige, then quit in frustration. The breakthrough came when his family doctor told him about a University of Washington test center that revealed the truth about Cordell's condition: he had an above-average IQ, but a minute ''dead'' spot on his brain had rendered him so severely dyslexic that letters looked like incomprehensible squiggles to him. With the mystery -- and much of the shame -- cleared up, Bonnie found a local Laubach Literacy Action facility, where a private tutor helped Cordell decode each letter of the alphabet by matching it to a picture. Within six weeks he was reading above the first-grade level. Throughout his brief school career, Sunkel was the one unteachable child in a family of eight boys. His father, a construction foreman, had finished high school, and his mother had attended college. At Silverdale's elementary school, he would sit and daydream, understanding almost nothing. He started stealing his parents' liquor and skipping school when he was eight. Although Sunkel says the community remembers him as a juvenile delinquent, he had an industrious streak that kept him out of serious trouble. At 12, he dropped out of school and became an instant entrepreneur, making $65 a week from his own car-washing business. ''Of course, that had its bad side. It made me think I could do fine without reading,'' he points out. In his teens he wandered through a series of marginal jobs in shipyards, gas stations and factories. He was 21 and working in a sawmill when he married Bonnie, who was a high school junior. ''I just assumed he could read and write,'' she recalls. She doesn't remember exactly when or where she first realized the truth, but once she did she never stopped urging him to learn. While she waited and hoped for the breakthrough, Bonnie became the story reader and homework tutor for their children, Tara, now 21, and Ed, 17. But that was clearly no solution. The children watched their father lurch through more and more frequent bouts of drinking and depression without knowing why. Their father did. Being unable to read to his own small children when they asked him to made him feel useless. Sunkel also found himself living in constant dread of ''having people get too close to me and finding out that I couldn't read.'' For that reason, the idea of working for himself was appealing. He sensed an opportunity one day in 1972 when an acquaintance came into the gas station where he was working and asked whether he knew anyone who might want to buy a $6,500 bulldozer with hauling capacity. Sunkel went straight to a bank, asked for a loan application, mumbled an excuse about ''my kids waiting in the car'' and took the papers home for Bonnie to fill out. Within a few days, he got the loan to buy the bulldozer and started his business. It grew falteringly but debt-free over the next 10 years. Revenues never dropped below $50,000 a year -- but never rose above $100,000 either. Pretax profit was always at least 10%. Initially, learning to read was not good for his business. In early 1983, when he was reading as well as a sixth-grader, he leaped into expansion, acquiring an office, a partner and a secretary, as well as a plan to take on actual building construction and play venture capitalist to other contractors. Result: after a 30% pretax profit on sales of $100,000 in 1982, he grossed nearly double that in 1983, but profits plunged to about 10%. By the spring of 1984, he realized that he was happier and more successful running the business in his old scaled-back way. Now, as Sunkel's finances strengthen again, he has made time to be a spokesman for the Washington State Literacy Council, lecturing about rewards that most people take for granted. His assessment of literacy and its benefits: ''It's not just my business that's better now. My family's closer. I know more about the world. I even eat better. I can finally read the menus in restaurants.''